Storytelling: How to Sell a Life of Mediocrity

I've been there, and to make myself feel better about myself, I'll imagine that you've been there too.

Faced with the dreadful burden of writing my application essay for graduate school, I sat in the dark of the night as a bright screen of text glares down upon me. I had spent hours poring over what I felt was the essence of my soul, grasping at any semblance of substance in my life story and launching them at the page in a frenzy. I prayed that the reviewer, wielding the omniscience that someone with as much godlike power ought to possess, can unravel my text and relive my life through my own eyes. I tell myself that upon reading my personal statement, they will realize that they were born for this moment to accept me into the program. Satisfied with the splotches of black as witnessed through my bleary eyes, I save the document and go to sleep.

The next morning, I open the document. Sure, there might be a couple grammatical errors---after all, I threw those letters together in a hasty delirium---but in that delirium, I unleashed my true self for all to bare! This is the unfiltered me that only I would know! A conversation between me and God, that you can bear witness to!

Bear, I did, with teeth bearing against teeth. Grimacing, I scroll down, face in hand, peeking through my fingers.

The text would bare its fangs had it any to bare. But alas, there are none because the words fall flat and strung together, the sentences flop like spaghetti. I realize that while the reader is not divine, it would not require divinity to realize that my tale (my life story!) is painfully unoriginal.

What have I done with my life?

Did I even live?

Dejected, I go back to sleep. I shan't be attending class today, for one hour of thermodynamics will not be transforming me into the anime protagonist I thought I was.


If you can't relate to this, then this isn't for you. You might still have trouble capturing your audience's attention with your fantastical protagonist life story, but rest assured that a bard will come along to sing of your heroics for you. Plot armor will catch up soon enough and everything will work out anyway.

If you're not an anime protagonist, then perhaps you'll find my approach helpful for swindling your readers into believing you are.

When telling your story, realize that stories are driven by their characters. Even a story about nothing can be interesting so long as the characters are compelling and evoke emotion from the audience (see Seinfeld, Waiting for Godot, any slice-of-life anime). The phrase "show, don't tell" has been ceaseless rehashed, but that phrase doesn't mean you should settle for simply showing the reader what you did. Rather, you should show them how you felt when you did it. Show them how you struggled to endure or triumphed with ease. Press their face against the window and force them to witness the glistening sweat dripping from your gnarled brow as you bore the lumbering weight of the world on your shoulders, or your nonchalant eyeroll as your butler scurried over to swat your troubles away.

Once you have your details, you must then piece it together with your words. Vivid imagery helps, but your sentence construction bears importance as well, because your words and sentences construct a rhythm that beats away in your reader's head. It can quicken its pace, hastening to a climax, or instead it can drag itself along, puttering along and sputtering its steam away into silence. Short sentences speed things along and drive points home with vigor, while long, winding sentences flow ceaselessly like a lazy river, with the point drawn out like electrical wire from a block copper.

Now you may ask yourself, why should you do this? Did I not transcribe an entire rant about conciseness?

Sure, don't use unnecessary words, but remember the point of conciseness is to limit unnecessary ideas so as to maximize impact. Would you prefer to read a 2-page resume or CV detailing every monster some fantasy hero has defeated and a list of every town they've rescued, or 10 pages of a rich and vivid story about an everyman's courageous struggle to save one family from the twisted fingers of fate?

Sometimes, it might feel like you're competing against people who've done everything under the sun and more, while you've only got a couple items under your belt. If that's the case, then you better make those items memorable with a good story.


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